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A Pick and a Punch: Late-Game Spontaneity Won on Two Successive Days in College Football

Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 2021-09-24

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Two stunning plays that happened thousands of miles apart saved the games—and possibly the seasons—for Louisville and BYU.

Football is the most planning-intensive of sports. There are fat playbooks and long hours of film study and detail-obsessed practices that lead to literal scripts of how coaches envision a game playing out. And then they kick off and a lot of it goes straight into the dumpster.

That’s one of the game’s great beauties. Prepare for everything, then react on the fly when the preparation no longer applies. Heroism can arrive suddenly and unexpectedly. Spontaneity can still win the day.

Across the landscape of a typically unruly college football weekend, spontaneity won two successive days, Sept. 17 and 18. Two stunning, raw-instinct plays that profoundly impacted games—and possibly seasons, when all is said and done. Two plays thousands of miles apart that sent home crowds crazy, and that both fan bases are still talking about today (perhaps the losing fans are, too).

One came late Friday night, perpetrated by a running back-turned-linebacker reverting to a running back in the moment. The time: 10:57 p.m. ET. The other came late Saturday night, perpetrated by a linebacker-turned-running back reverting to a linebacker in the moment. The time: 10:56 p.m. MT.

This is the kind of improvisational serendipity the sport produces. All the time.

Play No. 1 was in the Central Florida–Louisville game. The undefeated Knights had just picked off a Malik Cunningham pass in Louisville territory with a mere 24 seconds left in a tied game. The last chance to win in regulation seemingly belonged to UCF, which needed just one first down to get into potential field goal range.

Quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw an underneath route to Amari Johnson, whose concentration might have been affected by a Louisville lineman dropping into coverage. The ball caromed off Johnson’s hands, and freshman Jaylin Alderman was the linebacker in the right place at the right time. Except he really wasn’t supposed to be in the game at all.

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Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY Sports

This pressurized moment was his first play of defense that game, after participating on kickoff coverage. It was only the fifth or sixth play of his college career defensively, with a single tackle in mop-up duty against Eastern Kentucky to his credit. Alderman was thrust into this urgent situation by an injury to starting linebacker Monty Montgomery, then wound up with this gift from the football gods: a tipped ball dropping into his hands at the Louisville 34-yard line.

That’s when Alderman’s high school running back instincts kicked in (he played both ways but was recruited as a linebacker, with Louisville his only serious Power 5 suitor). The 5' 11", 215-pounder from the football hotbed of Valdosta, Ga., sprinted to the right sideline, in front of the delirious Louisville bench, and just kept on sprinting until he was in the end zone. “I got a little speed in me,” Alderman told Sports Illustrated . “When the ball dropped in my hands, I knew I had to try to score. It was really like muscle memory.”

The only UCF player with a shot at him was the unfortunate Johnson, who was easily blocked out of the way just short of the goal line. Suddenly Jaylin Alderman had gone from virtual anonymity to savior in the time it took him to run 66 yards. “I got back to the locker room and looked at my phone, and I had an alert from the ESPN app—and it was about me,” Alderman says. “It was unbelievable, dream come true. I went crazy.”

For a beaten-down Louisville fan base, this was a jolt of adrenaline. After a promising first season under coach Scott Satterfield, the program backslid to 4–7 in 2020. Then Satterfield flirted with the South Carolina job, eroding the early love affair he’d enjoyed in the city. Meanwhile, the men’s basketball program had been wracked with scandal and was coming off a rare miss of the NCAA tournament.

Not much had gone right in a long time until Alderman introduced himself late last Friday. It didn’t take long for the “Alderman for Mayor” jokes to circulate around town.

Play No. 2 was in the Arizona State–BYU game. The undefeated Sun Devils were, in spite of their own penalty-ridden incompetence, hanging around on the road in Provo. They had scored 10 third-quarter points to shrink a 21–7 deficit to 21–17, and they had just pressured Cougars quarterback Jaren Hall into a most regrettable decision.

With a tackler wrapped around his leg, Hall tried to lob a throw in the direction of a receiver along the sideline. Linebacker Merlin Robertson raised his hands to intercept it, then set sail for the end zone some 70 yards away. That’s when running back Tyler Allgeier took matters into his own hands. Or fist.

Allgeier, who had been in the backfield on pass protection on the play, set off in pursuit of Robertson. After initially bumping into Hall and nearly falling, Allgeier said it didn’t take long to figure out that he was faster than the ASU linebacker, and it was a matter of time before he caught up to him. But then what? “He wasn’t going to score,” Allgeier told SI. “So I just thought, ‘What are the chances of me stripping it?’ ”

Then Allgeier—who spent the 2019 season recording 26 tackles at linebacker for BYU because he couldn’t get on the field at running back—did something straight out of the stunt man action movie playbook. Actually, it was better than that, because you could shoot 1,000 takes and never have it turn out quite that perfectly.

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Allgeier grabbed Robertson’s left shoulder, leaped upon his back and threw a downward right-hand punch that knocked the ball loose so cleanly that it just lay there on the Lavell Edwards Stadium grass like an Easter egg waiting to be discovered. Soon enough, the hustling Hall made up for his throwing error by falling on the ball. BYU retained both possession and the lead, the latter for the rest of the night.

“I was literally trying to just do my one-eleventh,” Allgeier says, with admirable modesty. “I’ve never done that before or practiced that before—that was an unpracticed punch. But now I’ve got that in my arsenal.”

Now he has BYU folk hero in his arsenal, especially if this undefeated season continues trending the right way. If he doesn’t make that play, the Cougars may well fall behind and may well lose. But he did make that play, and now they have three wins over Pac-12 opponents with three more Power 5 opponents plus Boise State and undefeated Utah State left on the schedule.

After an 11–1 season in 2020 netted no serious College Football Playoff consideration, BYU could bring a better résumé to the table this year. But if the Cougars hadn’t beaten ranked Arizona State, nobody would be paying attention. And if Allgeier hadn’t made his game-altering play, they may well have not beaten Arizona State.

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Really, Allgeier’s entire college career has been one long hustle play. Recruited by almost no one of consequence coming out of Fontana, Calif., he was considering taking a partial scholarship to Division II Southern Nazarene in Oklahoma when he got a chance to visit BYU. Coach Kalani Sitake offered him a preferred walk-on position. Allgeier had loved the visit. He looked at his mom, who gave her blessing. “We’ll make it work if you put in 110%,” she told him.

He was put on full scholarship after the 2019 season, his second at BYU. “I bet on myself,” he says. That was the year he played linebacker and special teams. Last year he moved back to running back and led the team in rushing with 1,130 yards and in touchdowns with 13. This year he is on pace for another 1,000-yard season.

But for now, the play most people will remember first when it comes to Allgeier is the one where he reverted to his defensive instincts and performed the Immaculate Punch. He articulated the hope of every college football player—every athlete, really—and the optimism they have to take into every competition: “You literally never know when your time will come.”

Amid the mayhem of a play that veers off script, it suddenly may be your moment. Be ready.

More College Football Coverage:

Week 4 Picks: Who Will Close September With a Win?
Can Cincinnati Lift the Group of 5 to New Heights?
Five Conference Title Games New Faces Could Crash
What a 12-Team Bracket Would Look Like After Week 3

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